Alan Arkin: The American Guinness

Somehow Alan Arkin (b.1934) managed to become one of America’s most acclaimed and accomplished actors, with a track record that is positively breathtaking, without (except for a brief time) becoming one of America’s biggest stars. I think of him as something equivalent to the American Alec Guinness, apart from the fact that he doesn’t do classical roles. But like Guinness, he’s a chameleon, extremely gifted at accents, and has been in so many comedies, and been so funny in them, that one is tempted to call label him a comedian or a comic actor…until you remember how many dramas and other sorts of films he’s been in, and how moving he’s been in ways other than humor.

Arkin was raised in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. His first show business success came with a calypso group called The Tarriers in the early 1950s, which even had a minor hit with their own version of “The Banana Boat Song”. He studied at (and performed with) Second City in the 1960s, leading to his first Broadway credit From the Second City (1961). His breakthrough was being cast in the lead in Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (1963-64), directed by Gene Saks; then Murray Schisgal’s Luv (1964-67), directed by Mike Nichols.

From here his screen career begins, which we’ll split into comedy and non-comedy sections so you can see how strong each half of the resume is.

First he was cast in the all-star cold war comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! (1966), for which is nominated for a Best Actor Oscar — as a comical Russian, mind you! In 1968, a famous misstep: he played the eponymous role in Inspector Clouseau, when Peter Sellers passed on the role. The experiment didn’t go well. In 1969 he played a Puerto Rican dad in the comedy-drama Popi, directed by Arthur Hiller, a film not unlike Chaplin’s The Kid. In 1970 he played Yossarian in Catch-22, directed by Mike Nichols. In 1971 he directed and appeared in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, one of the most prescient and jaw dropping comedies you will ever see. The following year he not only starred in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, but also directed the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys. In 1974 came the buddy cop action comedy Freebie and the Bean with James Caan. In 1975 the road movie Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. He’s Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). He worked with Arthur Hiller again opposite Peter Falk in the comedy classic The In-Laws (1979). In 1981 he co-starred with Carol Burnett in Chu Chu and the Philly Flash. And he gave comical or essentially comical turns in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), So I Married an Ax Murderer (1993), North (1994), Gross Pointe Blank (1998), Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), Little Miss Sunshine (2006, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Get Smart (2008), Marley and Me (2008), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013), and the 2017 remake of Going in Style. This is only some of them.

His dramatic turns are fewer but stellar. He played one of the most compelling cinematic villains of all time in Wait Until Dark (1967), was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a deaf-mute in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), played a casino owner in Havana (1990), a Soviet spy in Mother Night (1996), a kidnapped ambassador in Four Days in September (1997), and was nominated for (and won) countless awards for his performances in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) and Argo (2012).

Arkin has a weakness for black comedy. In addition to some of those above named (Little Murders, Little Miss Sunshine etc), he starred in and directed Fire Sale (1977), a comedy about arson; and also played the main character in Improper Channels (1981) a comedy in which his character is wrongfully accused of child abuse. Arkin likes challenges, he likes to take risks. The dramatic art, I feels, should always be as daring, surprising, and as impressive as any vaudeville or circus turn. Arkin’s performances always are.